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May 10, 2013

Historical Echoes: What Do the New York Fed and Grand Central Terminal Have in Common?

Amy Farber

These two fine old entities—the New York Fed and Grand
Central Terminal—have at least three things in common: they are both about
100 years old, they both feature beautiful vaulting in some part of their
structure by the same “designer” masons, and they both go very deep into the
ground.


    
100 years old:
The Federal Reserve System will celebrate
its 100th anniversary in December 2013
, and
the New York Fed will celebrate
along with it
(although the New York Fed and its
building
are technically a little younger). Likewise, Grand Central
Terminal celebrated its 100th birthday this year, in February. The media
covered this event and the history of this edifice nicely with pieces from CNN,
the Wall Street Journal (click tabs for
video and slideshow) and The Daily Beast (an
almost poetic 100 facts), as well as a great video from CBSNewsOnline. In 1968,
the terminal was condemned to be demolished but found a champion in Jacqueline
Kennedy Onassis, who spearheaded a movement to save it from demolition. She
said, “If you destroy your past, something in people dies.”

    
Designer vaulting artists: Both the New York Fed and Grand Central Terminal
have beautiful vaulting in the Catalan style
by the Guastavinos (father and son)—“vaulting” as in ceilings, not
“vault.” We are not talking about the well-known gold vault here, folks. (Not
yet, anyway.) At the New York Fed, the vaulted ceiling (see
also older
picture
) can be seen on the first floor by visitors to the Fed’s museum. In
Grand Central Terminal, this vaulting may be seen in the famous Oyster Bar (try to watch
the ceiling, not the food!) and the attached Whispering Gallery (tour guide Dan
Brucker does an amusing demonstration
of how to communicate using the Whispering Gallery, but it sounds like he’s whispering
none too softly). The Guastavinos, father Rafael from Spain (1842-1908) and
son Rafael Jr. (1872–1950), have become the object of intense study by an enthusiastic
professor of engineering at MIT: John Ochsendorf. In a two-part lecture (Professor
Ochsendorf starts speaking about ten minutes in; here is Part 2), he describes the
history of the Guastavinos, the many buildings in the United States that have
examples of their vaulting, and why the structures are so strong (still a
mystery—he
is having his engineering students study and build them). Other examples of
this special vaulting that are “closer to home” include the Ellis
Island Registry Hall
, the Queensboro
Bridge Market
, the City
Hall Subway Station
(never actually used for subways), the
Cathedral
of Saint John the Divine
(bottom picture), the Prospect Park Tennis Pavilion (seen at the
lower part of this blog
entry
), and the Bronx Zoo
elephant house
. A traveling exhibit called “Palaces for the
People
,” began at the Boston Public
Library’s McKim Building, the first major American public commission for
Guastavino Sr. The exhibit (along with a scale model of a Boston Public Library
ceiling vault constructed by contemporary masons) will find its way to the
Museum of the City of New York in fall 2013. NPR has a recent story about this exhibit and John Ochsendorf's role in the revival of interest in the Guastavinos.

    
Deep into the ground:
The New York Fed and Grand Central Terminal both have subbasements of
considerable depth, but for very different reasons. The Fed’s basement is 50
feet below sea level and 80 feet (five stories) below street level and is home
to the famous
gold vault
. The
gold
, much of which belongs to foreign
governments, arrived around the time of World War II when countries wanted a
safe place to store their gold reserves. Other account holders
who store gold at the New York Fed are the U.S. government, central banks (but
not the Federal Reserve itself), and official international organizations. All
this gold needs to be stored atop something that is strong enough to support
its great weight: bedrock. As for the basement at Grand Central Terminal,
according to the same amusing tour guide already mentioned, one of the reasons
for Grand Central’s extra deep subbasement (160 feet down!) was so that FDR could have his own
private train
(he called it FDR’s “emergency egress out of New York City”).
There is also quite a lot of machinery down there.

Disclaimer
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.


Amy Farber is a research librarian in the Federal Reserve
Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.

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